CommunityThe Dissenter

The Pentagon’s ‘Zero Tolerance’ Policy on Military Sexual Assaults

(photo: Jared Rodriguez/


A distressing story on rape in the United States military featured stories of women who had been diagnosed with personality disorders for reporting they were sexually assaulted.

The story published by CNN found all branches of the armed forces tend to dismiss allegations of sexual assault, which in some instances result in the women being called “lying whores” or something similar.

One of the “incidents” detailed involves Stephanie Schroeder, a Marine. She was followed into the bathroom in April 2002. The person who followed her, a male Marine, “punched her, ripped off her pants and raped her.” She reported what had happened to a “non-commissioned officer,” who dismissed the allegation and said, “Don’t come bitching to me because you had sex and changed your mind.”

Highlighted is the fact that the Pentagon has a “zero tolerance” policy for sexual assaults in the military. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has declared, “The number of sexual assaults in the military is unacceptable.” He finds that the Pentagon has a duty to keep men and women “safe from those who would attack their dignity and their honor.” But Anu Bhagwati, who is a former Marine commander and executive director of the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN), makes it clear that it is very easy for superior officers in the military to get rid of any woman who reports sexual assaults.

…It’s convenient to sweep this under the rug. It’s also extremely convenient to slap a false diagnosis on a young woman … and then just get rid of them so you don’t have to deal with that problem in your unit. And, unfortunately, a lot of sexual assault survivors are considered problems…

When one looks at how there were 3,191 military sexual assaults reported in 2011, it becomes clear that the Pentagon does not really have a “zero tolerance” policy. Worse, the Pentagon admits that most sexual assaults aren’t reported and puts the number of sexual assaults that occurred last year at 19,000.

This extraordinary number of sexual assaults and the pattern of labeling women who report rape “crazy” leads one to suspect that what the Pentagon really means when it says it has a “zero tolerance” policy is they have no tolerance for people who report rapes or sexual assaults. The pervasive culture of rape in the military is too much to address and there is a “war on terrorism” to be fought. The Pentagon cannot lose good military officers because they do not respect women and have the ability to control themselves sexually.

This is further affirmed by a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit that SWAN, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the ACLU of Connecticut filed against the Pentagon and the Veterans Affairs Department. The groups submitted requests for records on the prevalence of “military sexual trauma” (MST), including rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment, because they “occur nearly twice as often within military ranks as they do within civilian society.” They wanted information on the policies of the Pentagon and VA on MST and the agencies’ response. But, the Pentagon and VA refused and continue to refuse to disclose documents on the so-called “zero tolerance” policy of the US military.

The Army Crime Records Center, according to an ACLU blog post, “claimed it couldn’t provide records about ‘sexual assault’ because its records are organized by specific criminal offenses such as “rape,” not under the general heading of ‘sexual assault.'” To which the judge hearing the lawsuit responded, “‘Sexual assault’ is easily read as encompassing rape and other non-consensual sexual crimes defined in the Army’s offense codes…The fact that the agency was unwilling to read the Plaintiffs’ request liberally to include such terms seems to be almost willful blindness.”

Part of the records request has apparently been released, but a range of documents are still being withheld. The Pentagon and VA’s legal challenge to the request for records shows it doesn’t want people to find out the truth about how it handles “military sexual trauma.” It is afraid SWAN and the ACLU could uncover details that might embroil the Pentagon in scandal.

The Pentagon would prefer to continue diagnosing women with personality disorders, which can result in a significant burden for women:

In the military’s eyes, a personality disorder diagnosis is a pre-existing condition and does not constitute a service-related disability. That means sexual assault victims with personality disorder discharges don’t receive benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs to help with their trauma. They can still apply for benefits, but it’s considered an uphill battle.

There are other costs. For example, members of the armed forces who receive a personality disorder discharge lose education benefits under the GI Bill.

This sends a message to women to take it and enjoy sexual trauma or else face the threat of no longer being allowed to serve in the military.

The preferred secrecy of the Pentagon is not surprising. The military is currently prosecuting Pfc. Bradley Manning, who is accused of releasing classified information to WikiLeaks. The legal proceedings thus far have shown how much the Pentagon prizes secrecy and counts on soldiers to not share information on military operations, speak openly on the Internet or talk to journalists about what they are experiencing in the military.  So, it makes sense that the Pentagon would vigorously challenge the release of records on sexual assaults just as vigorously as it would prosecute alleged leakers of classified information.

Obstructing FOIA requests cannot reasonably be considered to be in line with a “zero tolerance” policy for sexual assaults. Transparency would make it harder for officers to get away with chauvinistically disregarding women who are violated. It would make it easier for women to have the courage to report how they were being treated. Yet, just like soldiers who experience behavior health or psychological problems are disregarded (which is what happened to Manning), women in the military who are raped are ignored and penalized for seeking accountability or treatment for sexual assault.

The Pentagon may claim it has a public policy of “zero tolerance,” but within the military, that policy is empty and unenforced. Punishment from superior officers is unlikely, which means men can do whatever they want with women and continue their job in the military.


Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has now proposed “new steps” the military will take to address the problem of sexual assaults in the military. AP reports:

Among the policy changes is the requirement that a higher authority within the military will review the most serious cases, a step to ensure that cases remain within the chain of command and leaders are held responsible. Panetta also announced the creation of a special victims unit within each of the services and an explanation of sexual assault policies to all service members within 14 days of their entry in the military.

It seems doubtful that a higher authority will have much impact if it is in the military. The military will be able to keep cases of sexual assault secret, presumably. Keeping it within the chain of command won’t do anything to help soldiers that might be diagnosed with personality disorders if they report sexual assault and superior officers do nothing.

The special victims unit sounds like a good proposal (one can imagine a future hit show on CBS being proposed right now), but will it really do anything to help? Explaining sexual assault policies won’t stop anyone from raping or sodomizing another soldier if that soldier feels an impulse to violate a person. So, if these proposed changes pass, the military must immediately begin to come down on people who are accused of sexual assault or rape. If the military doesn’t, this will just be another worthless bureaucracy because it will follow a standard that is set early and fail to really make any progress.


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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."